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In their words: Students on taking study drugs

By Naomi Clarke, Oscar Elmon,

Many students are seeking alternative boosts to deal with academic pressure, lack of concentration, and tiredness.

Be that a coffee, the infamous 20-minute power nap, or the rarely discussed ‘study drugs’.

‘Study drugs’ are those substances taken by people in hope of increasing concentration and alertness. The Durham University students that spoke with Palatinate have taken Modafinil, Adderall, and Ritalin.

“I wouldn’t have got a first without the all-nighters I pulled throughout the year, and I wouldn’t have been able to do them without Modafinil.”

3rd year Durham student

The most used ‘study drug’ amongst students Palatinate spoke with was Modafinil, usually prescribed to treat narcolepsy or sleep apnoea.

A current Durham 3rd year told Palatinate: “We are all trying to reach the best of our potential, and as adults, we are entitled to do that in the way that we see as most beneficial – for some people it might be a triple shot latte on the way to the library, for others it’s taking a Modafinil when they feel their focus slipping.

“University is a lot of pressure a lot of the time, and especially when you take part in extra-curricular activities on top of your degree, the need to utilise your time effectively is very real.

“I wouldn’t have got a first without the all-nighters I pulled throughout the year, and I wouldn’t have been able to do them without Modafinil.”

Some students admitted to buying ‘study drugs’ from other people, whilst others actually had a prescription.

A philosophy postgraduate told Palatinate: “I first tried Modafinil during exam season in first year. I later also tried Armodafinil, Ritalin and Dextroamphetamine.”

“I’ve only used Ritalin once, as it is rather hard to get by, but definitely the best one. I would do Modafinil or Armodafinil more frequently, but mainly when it came to pulling an all-nighter or during exam period.

“Durham University needs to consider using a variety of assessment methods”

-Audini, The Students’ Union Undergraduate Academic Officer

Most students affirmed that pressure came mainly from themselves, but that academic deadlines and stress added to their situation.

A Classics graduate of 2019 spoke of the pressure: “I think it came from myself mainly but that was in response to the University and the department – some deadlines were so close together.”

-Audini, The Students’ Union Undergraduate Academic Officer, reacted to Palatinate’s findings: “An academic environment in which some students feel the need to take study drugs, despite the risks associated with these substances, is an environment which is not taking into account the needs of all students.

“As part of my priorities this year, I am working to make sure that the model of academia at Durham is more reflective of the reality of student life and takes into account the complexities of wellbeing in an academic context.

“Durham University needs to consider using a variety of assessment methods, which are inclusive of students’ experiences, and complement these with a student support system that allows students to access necessary adjustments and help when they need them.”

In a survey across 35 countries, 29.9% of participants had taken cognitive enhancers

There is a similar story for many Durham students, who also take on numerous extracurricular positions and have to balance their lifestyle.

The Classics graduate spoke of their “frustration” that they were tired all of the time with work and drama rehearsals. “I felt like I was never reaching my full potential. I also have sleeping issues generally. It seemed like the best way to write an essay”

Another third-year student spoke of how they struggled with “juggling some really challenging family circumstances with the mounting academic pressure of second year.”

The student explained how they had sought academic help but stated: “It can be difficult to be seen quickly and efficiently when seeking help for those sorts of extenuating circumstances, and as much as I wish I didn’t have to resort to it, Modafinil allowed me to push past these difficulties.”

According to the Global Drug Survey 2019, in which 123,814 people across 35 countries were surveyed, 29.9% of participants had taken pharmacological cognitive enhancement (PCE) at least once in the past 12 months.

This broke down as 22.1% amphetamine (Adderall), 4.7% caffeine tablets, 2.8% methylphenidate (Ritalin and Cocerta), and 1.3% Modafinil.

While Modafinil is considered non-addictive, it can equally bring its own side effects

There has been a steady increase from previous studies. Between 2015 and 2017, people using PCE substances jumped from 5% to 23% in the UK alone, according to the same survey.

A National Union of Students study in 2018, which surveyed almost 3,000 UK-based students, found that 1 in 10 of all students who took part in the survey said they had taken study drugs to improve focus and motivation.

Adderall, specifically, leads to the consistent release of dopamine in the brain, and, as this level remains artificially high, users put themselves at a higher risk of addiction.

Whilst Modafinil is considered non-addictive, it can equally bring its own side effects. A Philosophy postgraduate explained to Palatinate how they suffered “terrible chest pain, arrhythmia and very low moods at the come-down, especially when done frequently and larger dosages.”

“The academic pressure we’re constantly put under sometimes means we have to do an all-nighter and for me I couldn’t do that without taking something to keep me awake and make me concentrate.”

Durham 3rd year student

A History graduate told of the issues they’ve seen their friends experience when taking the drug: “It throws you totally out of any sleep pattern so people end up crashing and burning – people that take it a lot tend to panic when it’s worn off and end up missing deadlines.”

Another finalist student spoke of how the academic pressures they felt drove them to take Modafinil. They continued: “The academic pressure we’re constantly put under sometimes means we have to do an all-nighter and for me, I couldn’t do that without taking something to keep me awake and make me concentrate.”

However, they were aware of the risks that came with it, admitting: “Sometimes the risks scared me and you can never be 100% sure what is in the drug you’re taking but if it gives me a better chance of getting a higher mark, I’d do it. Having become more aware of the strain that that kind of behaviour put on my mental health, I decided not to take the drug again.”

Palatinate approached the University for comment on students taking study drugs when completing their academic work

Jeremy Cook, Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Colleges and Student Experience), said “We are aware that some students take prescription drugs to increase concentration for the purpose of studying, following medical advice.

“Durham University takes very seriously the health and wellbeing of our students and is considering whether it is appropriate to apply further policies in this area.”

Some of the full student statements can be found below:

“Last year, I had to juggle some really challenging family circumstances with the mounting academic pressure of second year. It can be difficult to be seen quickly and efficiently when seeking help for these sort of extenuating circumstances, and as much as I wish I didn’t have to resort to it, Modafinil allowed me to push past these difficulties. At times it did make me feel jittery and even overly emotional if I didn’t take it without planning my day carefully ahead, but overall I love how it takes my mind away from anything other than the task at hand. I know for a fact that I wouldn’t have achieved a 2:1 without it. I also regularly took melatonin as a sleep supplement, as both the academic pressure around exam season, and the same extenuating circumstances would keep me awake at night, affecting my performance when revising during the day.”

“We are all trying to reach the best of our potential, and as adults we are entitled to do that in the way that we see as most beneficial for us as individuals – for some people it might be a triple shot latte on the way to the library, for others it’s taking a Modafinil when they feel their focus slipping. University is a lot of pressure a lot of the time, and especially when you take part in extra-curricular activities on top of your degree, the need to utilise your time effectively is very real. I wouldn’t have got a first without the all-nighters I pulled throughout the year, and I wouldn’t have been able to do them without Modafinil.”

“I’ve been using Modafinil for almost two years now. I was quite cautious at first, but after reading a few reassuring articles and asking a relative about it (a pretty liberal psychiatrist) I decided to give it a go. What I noticed immediately was time was no object; my degree involves a lot of absorption of material I’m not necessarily always interested in, but I was suddenly able to read vast quantities and not get bored. I’ve also found it particularly useful for repetitive music practice. I’ve even started using it almost ‘recreationally’ – for example, if I want to stay focused in lectures after a heavy night of drinking, or just to feel sharp and on top of my game. It’s cheap, harmless and non-addictive, and ultimately everything I do while on it is my own work – if caffeine isn’t frowned upon, why should nootropics be?”

“In my second year, I often found myself in a position where I felt like there was no other option but for me to take Modafinil. The academic pressure we’re constantly put under sometimes means we have to do an all-nighter and for me, I couldn’t do that without taking something to keep me awake and make me concentrate. Sometimes the risks scared me and you can never be 100% sure what is in the drug you’re taking but if it gives me a better chance of getting a higher mark, I’d do it. Having become more aware of the strain that that kind of behaviour put on my mental health, I decided not to take the drug again. It’s much better to ask for help and speak to your department if you find yourself in that position, than to turn to a study drug you no nothing about. However, many people, myself included at the time, don’t feel like they can ask for help and that’s the root of the problem in my opinion.”

Photograph: Flickr via tr0tt3r

@NaomiAClarke @OscarElmon @JackPeterTaylor

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